Adams’ Appalachian photos archived at Baldwin Gallery

Tyler and Sheba

Tyler and Sheba

Award-winning environmental portrait photographer Shelby Lee Adams is creating a special archive at MTSU of his works that explore rural Appalachian family life.

Adams, whose friendship with MTSU Professor Tom Jimison led to the creation of the archive, will provide a significant portion of his photographic collection to the Baldwin Photographic Gallery in the College of Media and Entertainment.

The Eastern Kentucky native will allow MTSU to keep part of the proceeds from sales of prints of his compelling portfolio of powerful images created from more than four decades of visiting, photographing and collaborating with families in Appalachia.

“An artist of the magnitude of Shelby Lee Adams will raise the stature of the Baldwin Gallery and raise the consciousness of students and scholars looking to understand the conditions and quality of life in Appalachia,” said MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee. “We are honored that Mr. Adams has entrusted our university to ensure the legacy of his work and allow it to educate and inform our students and our communities.”

Adams met Jimison in 1980, when Jimison asked the photographer to exhibit his work at the University of Dayton, where Jimison was teaching.

“It was my first one-person exhibition,” Adams recalled. “We became fast friends, and we have continued our relationship.”

Shelby Lee Adams

Shelby Lee Adams

It also made sense for MTSU to house the archive, Adams said, because of the “proximity of MTSU to the people in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky I have photographed and the fact the people I have photographed will receive a portion of the print sales.

“They will also be able to come to the archive and enjoy the photographs — and receive digital photocopies of my work.”

The gallery, located on the second floor of the Bragg Building, is free and open to the public. Check baldwinphotogallery.com for hours.

A Kirkus review of a book of Adams’ 1993 work, “Appalachian Portraits,” described his photographs as “frank, unsentimental but often affectionate.” His photographs, the review said, show the effects of poverty but also “a resilience and grace. …

“These black-and-white photographs of families gathered on the porches or in the crowded rooms of their hardscrabble, venerable homes show a remarkable crispness of detail.”

Adams, 66, graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1974 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, then earned a master’s degree in photography from the University of Iowa in 1975 and a Master of Fine Arts from the Massachusetts College of the Arts in 1989.

He was one of seven photographers selected in 1978 by the National Endowment for the Arts to collectively make images in Kentucky for a publication, “Appalachia: A Self-Portrait.” He received an NEA fellowship in 1992.

In 1989, Adams was selected for the Massachusetts Artist Fellowship Program and from 1989 to 1992 earned artist support grants from Polaroid Corp. He received the Guggenheim Photography Fellowship in 2010.

Adams said his perspective was shaped by growing up in Appalachia during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” program.

“Many of the media representations of the people of the mountains of Eastern Kentucky were disappointing or embarrassing,” he said. “I decided then to dedicate my life to photographing the people of the mountains in a way that was both honest and accepted by the subjects.”

MTSU will offer a special limited-edition print of the photograph “The Brothers Praying” (1993) for sale to initiate the archive’s funding. The negative will be permanently retired after this printing of 12 images.

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Categories: Faculty, News, Partnerships

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